Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia: the possibility of building a new kind of city that will, freed of inner contradictions, positively enrich and further human development? (Lewis Mumford)

Cities are always too complex to be captured in axioms . . . The close relationship between space and society, between cities and history . . . [results not in] the coherent spatial form of an overwhelming social logic . . . but [in] the tortured and disorderly, yet beautiful patchwork of human creation and suffering. (Manuel Castells)

Recently a fox was sighted in the mews at the back of our house, which is situated on a London square.footnote1 It was later suggested that the ‘fox’ might actually have been only a cat, since the eye-witness had been drunk at the time. Yet the sighting, real or imagined, is still significant, for in fact everyone in our neighbourhood confidently expects to see a fox sooner or later. We already have squirrels, an owl, jays, even a hedgehog, and all this in Camden Town, the centre of London. To live in this London square has made me much more aware than I ever was before of the extent of nature in the city. Nature penetrates the city, and it appears that the larger the city, the more plants and animals it will shelter.footnote2 This rather goes against the way in which, in Western thought, nature and the city (the rural and the urban) are positioned as incompatible opposites. Discussion of the way in which the built environment encroaches on the countryside is not unusual, but the urban seeping into the rural is certainly almost always perceived as destructive and polluting, and movement in the opposite direction is seldom mentioned at all. Perhaps it is also seen as an aberration, a transgression against the clear boundaries which seem necessary to our sense of order.footnote3

This is certainly the way in which Lewis Mumford viewed the relationship between town and country. For Mumford, the city was a container, that is to say it was and had to be a finite space. He believed that the ‘sprawling giantism’ of the twentieth-century city was leading inexorably to megalopolis and thence to necropolis, the death of the city. The sharp division between country and city no longer exists, he wrote. The original container has entirely disappeared:

As the eye stretches towards the hazy periphery one can pick out no definite shapes . . . one beholds rather a continuous shapeless mass . . . the shapelessness of the whole is reflected in the individual part, and the nearer the centre, the less . . . can the smaller parts be distinguished.footnote4

Using, significantly, an organic metaphor, he describes such city growth as cancerous, social chromosomes and cells run riot in ‘an overgrowth of formless new tissue’, and continues: ‘The city has absorbed villages and little towns, reducing them to place names . . . [I]t has . . . enveloped those urban areas in its physical organization and built up the open land that once served to ensure their identity and integrity . . . [Then] as one moves away from the centre, the urban growth becomes ever more aimless and discontinuous, more diffuse and unfocused . . . Old neighbourhoods and precincts, the social cells of the city, still maintaining some measure of the village pattern, become vestigial. No human eye can take in this metropolitan mass at a glance.’footnote5

This was written over thirty years ago, and Mumford no doubt did not foresee the radical reassessment made by critical theory in recent years of the way in which, or so it is argued, the whole of Western thought is built on binary oppositions. There has, in particular, been a major challenge to the idea of the binary division of gender,footnote6 but on the whole this challenge has not been extended to urban/rural space, or at least not in the same prescriptive fashion. Binary divisions of gender have been attacked as oppressively essentialist, whereas in the discourse on the postmodern urban realm, it is the blurring of clear boundaries that causes anguish. Fredric Jameson, for example, in his classic article on ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’,footnote7 explored the vacuity of the ‘non-place urban realm’, the postmodern hyperreal, the centreless suburban web in which it was impossible to orient oneself, leading to a schizophrenic flatness of identity and affect. Yet his claim is made in passages of great literary glamour and dazzling rhetoric, which strangely undermine his argument, expressing a seduction, a certain aesthetic pleasure in the late twentieth century urban landscape. In a section of the article entitled ‘The Hysterical Sublime’ he writes of the euphoria of ‘those intensities which seem so often to characterize the newer cultural experience. . . . Let us stress again the enormity of a transition which leaves behind it the desolation of Hopper’s buildings or the stark Midwest syntax of Sheeler’s forms, replacing them with the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape,’ he continues: